During the swine flu pandemic in 2009, they helped run clinics and designed an online flu-shot scheduling system now used across the state. After last year’s tornadoes in Western Massachusetts, they managed a shelter for people whose homes were damaged. At the Boston Marathon’s finish line each April, they guide injured runners to medical help.
The busy crews belong to the Medical Reserve Corps of Region 4A, formed almost eight years ago as part of a national system of local networks ready to respond to public health emergencies, created in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But this largely volunteer group — the largest in the state, with about 4,800 participants representing 32 communities roughly bounded by interstates 95 and 495 — was deployed 10 times last year across Massachusetts.
Last month, after Hurricane Sandy whipped her way up the East Coast, 434 volunteers from the Region 4A corps were on standby, ready to be assigned to duties helping out storm victims. Since the weather was warm and local flooding was minimal, shelters were sparsely populated, so only a few volunteers were called to help run a Sudbury shelter.
But the local corps has been working behind the scenes to assist public safety and health agencies during a wide range of emergencies, while also helping staff community health fairs and local training programs for CPR and other safety initiatives.
“Because we’re the belt around Boston, we have lots of medical people and lots of regular good citizens that help us,” said Wendy Diotalevi, executive director of the Region 4A Medical Reserve Corps and Weston’s public health director. “It’s such a great thing for public health to have access to that level of expertise and knowledge, without having to pay.”
The Medical Reserve Corps units around the country were created by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a way to quickly mobilize public health systems in emergencies. After the anthrax attacks of 2001, the CDC wanted to devise a way to quickly distribute medicine in a national health emergency.
“Everything we’ve done since then has been an attempt to have public health prepared in the event of an emergency,” said Diotalevi. “It was very obvious right at the beginning we were going to need medical personnel and lots of people to help us.”
When the Region 4A unit began in 2005, several people began recruiting volunteers. Liisa Jackson signed up 1,100 people in six weeks — and so the group hired her as coordinator. The salaries for the few paid leaders and trainers in the corps are covered by CDC grants.
At first, the unit focused on helping dispense medication, as it did during the 2009 swine flu pandemic. A computer programmer working for the group created a website that took preliminary information from patients and scheduled them, in 15-minute intervals, to receive the shot.
“Our flu clinics were huge,” Jackson said. “It’s not like our seasonal flu clinics.”
The new website registered 18,000 patients for vaccinations. It worked so well that the Massachusetts Health Officers Association bought it and uses it as a central site for providing information about flu shots.
But it became clear that there was much more the corps could do in Massachusetts. Crews have stepped up to help the American Red Cross operate emergency shelters after natural disasters, for example. And the Region 4A team expanded its work across the state, rather than staying within its local boundaries.
“What’s interesting is they asked public health to do something that nothing in Massachusetts has done to a large degree, and that is work regionally,” Diotalevi said.
In West Springfield, after the tornadoes hit last year, the corps helped staff shelters for residents, including immigrants from Nepal and Bhutan who had lost their homes. Jackson used a computer program that tracked volunteers.
“She’s very organized and she helped pull in a lot of resources,” said Mark Noonan, conservation officer and assistant planner for West Springfield.
The local corps has won national attention, winning awards from the US surgeon general’s office for its work, including the help with shelters in Western Massachusetts.
Hurricane Sandy was the first weather emergency of this year’s bad-weather season, when the corps tends to get deployed most often.
A few Medical Reserve Corps volunteers worked at a shelter opened at the Fairbank Community Center in Sudbury. But because temperatures remained mild, most people who lost electricity stayed in their homes. The shelter closed after two nights.
About two-thirds of the region’s Medical Reserve Corps volunteers have medical backgrounds, including more than 1,000 nurses and almost 550 doctors. Other volunteers fill nonmedical roles, often helping to run shelters or provide transportation.
A few years ago, the corps started working with the Boston Athletic Association, and have been escorting runners who need medical assistance after completing the Boston Marathon.
“It’s a mass casualty event,” Jackson said. “There’s thousands and thousands and thousands of people that are coming to the finish line, they just ran 26 miles.”